Youth Blog – I Believe You, I Support You, It’s Not Your Fault: Supporting a Friend After Sexual Assault
Written by Beth Ann Hamilton, B.A., Program Assistant
Content warning: sexual assault, violence
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), a month dedicated to raising awareness of sexual violence, educating communities on prevention, and supporting survivors. The widespread occurrence of sexual violence makes SAAM necessary: the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey found that LGB people are more likely than straight people to report experiencing intimate partner or sexual violence, with bisexual women being impacted the most. Another survey found 21% of transgender, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming (TGQN) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN women, and 4% of non-TGQN men.
Though many people experience sexual assault, especially in the LGBTQ community, their loved ones often are unsure of how to support them after an assault. Here are some tips for supporting a friend who tells you they have experienced sexual violence:
Everyone knows someone who has been affected by sexual violence in some way. Even so, we’re often taught to internalize harmful rape myths that make it hard for survivors to share their stories or seek justice. Take the time to educate yourself on common reactions to sexual assault (there is no one right way to respond to sexual assault), the truth about false reporting rates (only 2-10% of sexual assault reports are estimated to be false), barriers to reporting sexual assault (it’s often difficult for a number of reasons), and victim blaming (sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault). Taking the time to learn about the dynamics of sexual assault shows that you care about being a knowledgeable, compassionate friend.
Victims of sexual violence are often met with disbelief when opening up about sexual assault. This might be especially true for LGBTQ survivors whose experiences may not fit into stereotypes (for example, the assumption that perpetrators [assaulters] are always men, or survivors are always women). Simply making a it a point to tell someone “I hear you and I believe that this happened to you” can be hugely important to a survivor. Let the person know how difficult it must have been for them to share this with you.
Let them lead the conversation.
Many people want to jump into problem-solving mode when they learn that a friend was sexually assaulted, especially if the assault happened recently. While it’s natural to react this way, it is best to focus on listening to your friend. Don’t interrupt them, start offering solutions, or expect them to share every detail of their story. If you want to hold their hand or hug them, ask before doing so and give them space if they say no. Survivors of sexual violence have their agency (their power) taken away from them when they’re assaulted. By letting your friend tell you what they need and respecting their wishes, you’re doing what you can to support them in regaining their agency.
Emphasize that it’s not their fault.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that often focuses attention on the behavior of sexual assault survivors, rather than sexual assault perpetrators. Because of this, it’s common for survivors to have feelings of self blame following a sexual assault. Telling your friend that what happened to them wasn’t their fault (regardless of where they were, what they were wearing, or if they were drinking or using drugs) can go a long way in making them feel supported. Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.
Even if you feel strongly that your friend should go to the hospital, report their assault to the police, or find a therapist, do not pressure your friend to take action in any specific way. These choices can be complicated, especially if your friend may be concerned about having to deal with homophobia, transphobia, and/or racism throughout the process. Ask your friend if they would like to learn about available resources and options, and support them with whatever decisions they make. Survivors have the right to make their own choices following sexual assault.
Take care of yourself, too.
It is never easy to hear that someone you love has experienced sexual assault (especially if you are also a survivor). Be sure to check in with your own feelings and take time for self care.
Most of these suggestions boil down to:
“I believe you, I support you, it’s not your fault.”
Nobody has all the right answers and that’s okay. You don’t need to know exactly what to say when supporting a friend who’s experienced sexual assault: meeting them with belief and love will go a long way in helping them heal.
- Anti-Violence Project (LGBTQ-specific)
- FORGE (transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary-specific)
- Rape Victim Advocates (Chicago-based)
- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)
- Planned Parenthood
Beth Ann Hamilton, B.A., (she/her) is a program assistant for ISGMH. She is a graduate of Michigan State University, where she studied Psychology and Bioethics. Beth Ann has extensive experience providing crisis intervention and in-person medical advocacy to survivors of sexual assault. She has also worked as a violence prevention peer educator and as a research assistant on an evaluation of a flexible funding program for survivors of intimate partner violence. She is passionate about feminism, consent-focused sexual health promotion, and gender-based violence prevention. Beth Ann is currently a graduate student in Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Health Communication program where she is focusing on sexual health education, healthcare provider response to intimate partner violence and reproductive coercion, and public health policy.
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